Highlands shines for the world championship
By Darren Lum
Feb. 7, 2017
After she crossed the line of the pulka one-dog elite race with her dog Oodle, Karen Koehler was overcome with emotion, embracing her dog and then her husband, crying on his shoulder, crouched in the freshly fallen snow with the backdrop of the IFSS World Championships start/finish area behind them.
Koehler, a Carnarvon resident representing Canada, said everything came out that Sunday, Jan. 29.
It was her last day of individual racing (she would race later that day in the national relay for Canada) in virtually her backyard at the Haliburton Forest and Wild Life Reserve. The tears came from the realization there wouldn’t be a more enriched championship, having it in the Highlands so her family and friends could cheer her starts and finishes; being integral to bringing the event here; and the strong performances in five races, which resulted in her being the best North American in two of them.
She said the Highlands is a place where dreams really do come true.
The former part time teacher at Archie Stouffer Elementary School said it started as a crazy idea.
Despite the perceived farfetched notion of it all she went forward with the idea anyways, laying the initial ground work and asked Haliburton Forest and Wild Life Reserve to take it on. The realization that everyone was here because of her dawned on her the week of competition.
“I was in shock. They’re all here. Everybody. It’s crazy I did this. Obviously not alone,” she said, recognizing the effort of the host venue Haliburton Forest, and, in particular, its staff, the volunteers and project co-ordinator Tegan Legge for making her dream a reality.
“The commitment they put into it was absolutely awesome. Tegan never dropped the ball. She was like we’re going to make this work,” she said.
Legge said there was a lot she will remember from the event, which included compliments from racers such as the Swedish team captains, who asked when the forest will apply for another championship, race marshall Nils Finsrud, calling it a “well organized event,” the efforts of her staff, volunteers and volunteer co-ordinator Cameron Ferguson.
She will also never forget the applause from the packed crowd that Taina Teras of Sweden received at the screening of the Dog Power Movie (www.dogpowermovie.com) on Wednesday night at the Wolf Centre. Teras, who is a paraplegic that breeds, trains and races sled dogs, showcased a prototype of a race sled that will enable her to compete with more than four dogs in future championships.
“The sled dog world truly brings folks from all walks of life together to help each other, cheer each other on and have fun,” she said.
Koehler’s appreciation extends to race official and event consultant Jim Cunningham, who came to the forest several times for planning. There was also all IFSS officials, Sarah Warford, Murielle Gouriou Ovenden, Russ Gregory and CAHDS.
Held from Jan. 23 to Feb.1, the event included an opening ceremonies and 135 people and more than 890 dogs that competed in skijoring and dogsled races in variety of classes, which included single-dog races in seven kilometre sprints up to 20 dogs in the 81 kilometre distance. They came from 11 countries such as Finland, Sweden, Norway, Czech Republic, the US, and even Spain. It concluded with a closing ceremony.
Being instrumental in getting the championship here wasn’t Koehler’s only victory.
She finished seventh overall and the top North American in the one-dog pulka event on Sunday, Jan. 29. It was a goal she set out to achieve entering the event.
Her seventh place finishes in the one-dog pulka and the two-dog skijoring events will go down as her highlights. It put her as the best North American finisher.
Even a 13th placing in the combined (pulka start then finish with skijoring) event still had her smiling upon recollection. She remembers the enjoyable battle with American Jessica Pulliam, which had them trading positions throughout until she built up an insurmountable lead down the finishing stretch when the American’s dog had to relieve itself. She finished as the second fastest North American. She also finished 19th in the skijoring women one dog elite class. Also, Koehler competed with Canada in the national relay and finished seventh despite an understanding she was racing for fun while on the course. She allowed competitors to pass her because of this and knows should could have placed higher.
Koehler’s friend and fellow competitor from Norway Lena Boysen Hillestad comes from a family of mushers that have won many trophies and medals. Her husband and daughter did not make the trip, but she flew with her son André and their four race dogs from Oslo to Newark, US where they rented a car and drove to Haliburton.
Both will return home as title holders.
She won her 24th World Championship title in dramatic fashion, taking the sled sprint limited four dog elite race with the fastest time of two heats after placing fourth on the first day in the sled sprint limited four dog elite.
Her many victories since she has been competing from 1979 have made her the one to beat. She welcomes this challenge and takes pride in her consistent excellence.
“I’m proud of winning over a long time period. People expect me to win, and everyone want’s to beat me all the time. It is quite cool to be able to stay in front,” she wrote in an email.
Coincidentally, her first world championship was won in 1991 when she competed in Winnipeg.
Her son Andre, who was born in 2002, joined her on this trip. He won the junior four-dogsled race with the best accumulative time of three heats.
Although she has never been to the Highlands before, she is very familiar with Canada.
She competed in the winter championship in 1991, the dryland equivalent in Quebec in 2009, has family in Vancouver and even honeymooned here in 1997.
She will always remember the victory, the friendships she forged and friends she reunited with, the good WiFi, the bad winter tires, snow scooters and the “great maple syrup.”
Unless it’s close by, Koehler is not sure how many more world championships she will be going to in the future. The luxury of having the event in your own backyard where you can sleep in our own bed will be difficult to duplicate.
“It’s one of the best experiences I’ve had because my family and friends were here to greet me everyday to see me off and come back from my races. That was so special,” she said.
It’s bitter sweet for the former part time teacher because she knows she won’t see many of the competitors outside of a world championship.
Koehler plans to race in regional races every week until March this year.
See Koehler compete locally when she plans to race at the upcoming Haliburton HIghlandsDogsled Derby the first weekend of March.
Unlike the bibs in other world championships, Koehler appreciated how these were localized by including the social media hashtag #myhaliburtonhighlands.
“This is kind of cool for helping ... it’s sort of saying we’re about tourism and promoting people coming and enjoying the winter,” she said.
Koehler started skijoring in 2004 when she adopted two retired sleddogs. Later that year she raced in her first competition after local resident Thom Lambert mentioned the opportunity to compete without experience at the Haliburton Highlands Dogsled Derby. It was the start of a passion and a relationship with a community she considers like family.
“That’s the cool thing about our sport. Lots of people come to the races and haven’t done too much and we give them tips. They just get better from there and get hooked into the circuit and bring the worlds to their home town,” she said.